Kansas Defense Looks Much Improved

The Kansas Jayhawks defeated the Southeastern Louisiana Lions Saturday night, 62-0, and I'm not sure which end of that score was more surprising.

For the second week, Kansas scored a ton of points while putting up over 500 yards of total offense for the second week in a row.

Lost in the shuffle, though, has been the improvement of a Jayhawks defense that returns a truckload of players from last year’s squad that played well against the run but was an absolute disaster against the pass, ranking 119th – dead last – in the country.

Oh, what a difference a year makes. On Saturday night, the Jayhawks held SLU to -31 yards rushing and just 106 yards passing for 75 yards of total offense.

The previous week, Kansas held Dan LeFevour, the nation’s most productive freshman QB last year, to one TD pass. And that score came with Kansas already up 45-0.

KU hasn’t exactly played USC and LSU the past two weeks, but the defensive performance is definitely encouraging. Head coach Mark Mangino said Saturday night that he’s been very happy with the play of his defensive group.

“I’m pleased with all three phases of the game,” he said. “I’m especially pleased with the defense. The defense was really impressive. Stopped the run, played the pass well, gave us great field position all night.”

He continued, “The defensive line got off the ball, they did a good job in the stunt game, they tied up a lot of blockers to keep our linebackers free. They did a good job, based on what I could see from the sideline.”

The numbers would seem to bear that out. LBs Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera and James Holt combined for 19 tackles, including a sack. Two other sacks came from DT James McClinton and DE Max Onyegbule. McClinton also racked up five tackles of his own.

No one ever wants to be last at anything, so maybe spending an entire off-season as the worst pass defense in the country was a motivator for the Jayhawks. All-American DB Aqib Talib said that everyone on the defensive side of the ball took the #119 ranking to heart, and they’re now starting seeing the benefits of hard work during the off-season.

“We were last in the nation in pass defense, and that’s not just the corners, that’s not just the secondary. That’s linebackers, that’s d-line, that’s everybody. We wanted to improve on that and continue to play well against the run. It just carried over from the off-season,” he explained.

DE Max Onyegbule, who brought down SLU QB Brian Babin in the end zone in the third quarter for a safety, thinks experience and confidence has made a huge difference. “It’s knowing what we have to do,” he said. “It’s knowing our responsibilities. Last year, we had a whole bunch of rookies. This year, we’ve got a bunch of experienced starters back.”

LB Joe Mortensen agreed. “We know we’re good. Last year, we were kind of inexperienced, but this year we know what we’re capable of,” he said.

“We’ve just got that swagger,” Onyegbule continued. “That’s something different from last year. We’ve got a hunch of experienced returners from last year. We’ve just got that swagger.”

Only once has KU held two consecutive opponents to fewer points. In 1975, the Jayhawks held Kansas State and Oklahoma to just three points. As the season wears on and as opponents get markedly better, will it be tough to maintain that swagger? Not so surprisingly, Talib doesn’t think so.

“Not at all. Week in and week out, we’re preparing the same way. We’re doing everything the game way. I don’t think it’ll be hard at all.

The KU defense will try and parlay this shutout into another solid effort against a Toledo squad who lost to Central Michigan, 52-31. In week one, Kansas beat that same CMU team, 52-7.

So, next Saturday’s contest looks to be another confidence-building tune-up and another opportunity for the Jayhawk defense to continue to get their Adidas underneath them.

That may be a good thing for a unit that talks as if they’re still smarting a little from wearing that #119 ranking all off-season long. While most KU fans are excited about an offense that seems to remember what to do once you get a lead, the defense is going about their jobs like they’ve got something to prove.

“We’re definitely flying around and trying to make some plays, but as for the whole defense, we’re really going to open some eyes this year,” Mortensen said.

Other game notes:

  • WR Marcus Henry logged his second straight 100-yard receiving game.
  • This is the first Kansas team to score 50 or more points in two consecutive games.
  • According to records back to 1974, this is the first Kansas team to gain 500 or more yards total offense in two consecutive games.
  • The 62-0 win was KU’s first shut-out since a 42-0 win over Southern Illinois in 2007.
  • The seven points scored by Central Michigan and Southeastern Louisiana is the fewest points scored by back-to-back opponents since KU held Kansas State and Oklahoma to just three points in 1975.
  • The 62-point win margin is the fourth largest in KU history. In case you’re wondering, KU beat Washington, MO, 83-0 in 1923.

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